Board revisits questions on courthouse project scope

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 14, 2002

The courthouse project discourse zigzagged during a workshop meeting Friday. The argument started with discussion about bonding options but ended up returning to an old dispute over the project size and the county’s needs.

County Administrator Ron Gabrielsen presented a study by Evensen Dodge, the bonding firm hired with the county, about recent public projects financed through bonds in other Minnesota counties.

The examples vary from the $50 million Hiawatha light rail project in Hennepin County to a $7 million law enforcement center in Beltrami County. None of the 11 capital-improvement projects in the study used a bonding option with a public referendum.

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But Commissioner Dan Belshan’s passion for pursuing the referendum was not sedated.

&uot;The study does not tell anything,&uot; said Belshan. &uot;It has to show the net tax capacity of each county.&uot; He thinks the proposed $25.7 million bonding is a significant financial commitment for Freeborn County, and is not comparable to projects in more affluent counties.

Belshan contended that the county should reexamine its inmate projection and reconsider the jail size in the new complex to compress the project. He returned to an idea he’s brought up before: Purchasing beds in jails outside the county to accommodate local inmates, rather than building a large jail.

Belshan believes shipping out long-term inmates along with implementing extensive home monitoring for work-release inmates would substitute for building a big jail facility. &uot;Let’s slow the train down. Let’s have a couple of options here,&uot; he said.

County Board Chairman Dave Mullenbach was frustrated by the relapse. &uot;The board has already made the decision. We voted it down by majority,&uot; he said. The 117-bed jail was based on a professional study by the BKV Group, and is consistent with projections in other counties. Mower County, for example, has a plan to increase its beds to 120.

Despite his reservations concerning the referendum, Commissioner Glen Mathiason aligned with Belshan.

&uot;$25.7 million. I just feel it’s too large,&uot; Mathiason said. &uot;I can be a lot more comfortable with $15 to $17 million.&uot;

He stressed that he understands the need for the project and is afraid that a referendum would dump the plan no matter what the price tag would be. And he said he would be willing to push for the non-referendum bonding if the project were moderated to fit the cost to his proposition.

His number derives from a statutory debt limit for the county that is two percent of the net taxable property value, or $34 million. Mathiason believes one-time borrowing should not exceed the half of the limitation.

Mathiason said he’s also concerned about the impact on taxpayers. &uot;The percentage increase to an individual taxpayer is huge,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s very significant for a one-time thing.&uot;

Belshan and Mathiason represent the rural electorate. Bonding with a referendum would exempt agricultural land from taxation, but farmers would still have to share an equal burden as city residents for their homestead. With non-referendum bonds, farmers would be taxed for their land.